Bezos: Attempts To Collect State Sales Tax On Amazon Sales Is Unconstitutional

from the won't-stop-'em dept

For quite some time now, we've covered how various states have tried to avoid laws that say mail order companies don't need to collect sales tax in states where they have no staff (while individuals are supposed to self-declare and pay that tax, almost none do). The main target has been Amazon, with various states pushing to get Amazon to pay taxes anyway. Amazon has taken a hardline with many of these states, even announcing plans to move subsidiaries out of Texas if it kept on trying to collect sales tax because of those subsidiaries. The latest, found via Slashdot, is that Jeff Bezos is claiming that such attempts to collect sales tax are unconstitutional without Congressional approval:
And in the U.S., the Constitution prohibits states from interfering in interstate commerce. And there was a Supreme Court case decades ago that clarified that businesses ó it was mail-order at that time because the Internet did not exist ó that mail-order companies could not be required to collect sales tax in states where they didnít have whatís called ďnexus.Ē

And thatís a very clear decision.
This is, of course, entirely accurate. Of course, Bezos also points out that Amazon would be perfectly happy with Congress stepping in and creating a sales tax system that works across states. There's been an ongoing effort for years, called the Streamlined Sales Tax Initiative, which tries to align all of the states and their sales tax practices, to avoid every company from having to follow 50 different sales tax laws. Bezos notes that Amazon would support such an initiative:
Our point of view on this is that we should simplify the sales tax system, and weíve been consistent on this for about 10 years. Itís called the Streamlined Sales Tax Initiative. I think 22 or 23 states have signed onto it. Because the right way to fix this is with federal legislation. Thatís where it can be fixed properly.

Sales tax collection is very complicated. And, you know, weíre no different from big chains of retailers ó they donít collect sales taxes in states where they donít have nexus, either. So everybody is following the same rules. And I donít think our customers would say, ďWhy donít you just optionally collect the tax? I know youíre not required to do it, but aw, go ahead.Ē
This is actually a pretty big issue. It makes sense that companies shouldn't have to collect sales tax in states where they have no employees. Not only does it create a massive bureaucratic nightmare (especially for smaller e-commerce players), but it actually acts as disincentive to sell into those states. On top of that, the point of the sales tax is supposed to be about supporting the local infrastructure for those retailers (roads, and such). But if you have no local presence, there's a much weaker argument that such taxation is needed. Still, I have no doubt that eventually sales tax will be standardized at the federal level in some format or another, just because the government can't resist a chance to tax -- especially a tax that can be seen as regressive, like a sales tax.

Filed Under: interstate commerce, jeff bezos, sales tax, states
Companies: amazon

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2011 @ 3:24pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    And donít tell me that figuring out 50 or 100 tax rates is a pain, use your programming smarts and write that code once and itís done.

    Actually there are only 7 states that make charging a sales tax nearly impossible, and it doesn't have anything to do with programming smarts.

    See, I'm a software developer, and my company actually resides in one of those 7 states. The problem isn't that we "don't have enough programming smarts"; the problem is that the law does not make it clear how to charge sales tax on an internet sale. For traditional "brick and mortar" you simply charge the sales tax for where your store is located. With an internet sale you have one big question:

    Where does the sale "take place"?

    At the internet retailers? At the address used for delivery? At the billing address?

    The 7 states that make charging sales tax truly impossible each have county or "locality" taxes. For instance, in Alabama, there are special tax rates if your sale "takes place" within a certain distance of some sports stadiums. Also, the rate for each locality is updated quarterly.

    I think there is one thing that really helps to bring home how difficult this problem is: There are no businesses or services provided that will guarantee to give a correct tax rate for every address in the United States. There are many paid services that will return a rate, but none of them promise accuracy and ultimately you as the retailer are responsible for any fines or penalties.

    One last thing, there are estimated to be around 11,000 sales tax rates in the United States, not 50 - 100. No one really knows the exact number.

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